Venezuelans seek joy amid the chaos

A woman holds a child as they get ready to hit a pinata at a birthday party celebration in Caracas,Venezuela, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Shaylim Valderrama and Ivan Alvarado

CARACAS (Reuters) – A night at a bar is interrupted by a power outage, going to a baseball game is prohibitively expensive, and a trip to a nearby beach requires months of savings. But many Venezuelans have not given up on finding ways to smile.

Despite an economic crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicine and has prompted more than three million to emigrate, Venezuelans are seeking ways to have fun and spend time with family in the hope of easing their discomfort.

Still, the increased frequency of blackouts and a political showdown between the socialist government and the opposition has cast a cloud of uncertainty, leaving many Venezuelans bereft of simple pleasures.

Venezuela fell to the 108th place in the 2019 World Happiness Report prepared by the United Nations, down from 102nd place in 2018. In the Western hemisphere, only Haiti was below the oil-rich nation, ranking 147th out of 156 countries studied by the U.N.

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. "It's a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country," said Martinez. "It's not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Leonel Martinez, who works as soldier, kisses his girlfriend as they spend a day at Coral beach in La Guaira near Caracas, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country,” said Martinez. “It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country.” REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The happiness report – which in its first edition in 2012 placed Venezuela in the 19th position – is based on indicators such as gross domestic product per capita, generosity, life expectancy, social freedom and absence of corruption.

Venezuela was plunged into darkness with two massive blackouts in March, generating water shortages and prompting the government to suspend work and school. Earlier this month, the government launched a power rationing plan, and electricity remains intermittent in many parts of the country.

In search of distraction, Venezuelans from the country’s capital of Caracas have long taken to the nearby seaside state of Vargas to spend weekends with family and friends on the shores of the Caribbean.

“You put your mind in another place,” said Leonel Martinez, a 26-year-old soldier while relaxing on the sand with his girlfriend while her nephews played nearby. “It’s a way to think about something besides what is happening in the country.”

But in a country where the monthly minimum wage amounts to just $6 per month, the $15-$20 a day trip to the beach can require months of savings and advance planning.

Martinez, who said he used to take the 40-kilometer (25 mile) trip to the beach frequently, said it was the first time he had gone in a year.

“It’s not something you can do every day, because of the situation in the country,” said Martinez.

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. "After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive," said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarad

Members of Family Rose softball team put their hands together before a match at Lecuna Avenue softball pitch in Caracas, Venezuela, March 24, 2019. “After the game we always had a few beers. But now they are too expensive,” said Felix Babaza. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

‘IN THIS WORLD THERE IS NO CRISIS’

For Venezuelans, queuing for food is a daily ordeal. They also are used to trying multiple pharmacies and hospitals in search of the medicines they need, and more recently have grown accustomed to collecting water from streams.

But that has not stopped Joaquin Nino, a cash-strapped 35-year-old father of two, from taking his kids to an amusement park in southern Caracas.

“We have to work miracles just to have some fun,” Nino said.

At a parade in eastern Caracas celebrating Holy Week, revelers dressed in straw hats topped with flowers sang, banged drums and blew trumpets to tropical beats. With the sun beating down, one marcher who gave his name as Carlos remembers how in past years onlookers would douse those marching with water to cool them down.

“Now, because of the problems with the water, that probably will not happen,” he said.

In central Caracas, a group of men of all ages meet every Sunday to play softball while a handful of their relatives watch. The wire fence that once surrounded the field was long ago stolen. The lights, which once allowed the group to play at night, were also pilfered.

“I always come because my husband plays,” said Delia Jimenez, a 62-year-old industrial designer who jumps up from the stands whenever her husband comes up to bat. “We have fun and we shake off our stress.”

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. "Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars)," said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A youth flies a homemade kite next to Gran Mision Vivienda housing project in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2019. The children make their own kites using a plastic bag, sticks and a nylon line. “Most expensive is the nylon cone, which is 10 thousand Bolivar notes (approximately 3 U.S. dollars),” said Luis Flores. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A few blocks away, groups of young people come together to break-dance, which they say is a way to disconnect. But some admitted that they had not been eating enough recently to be able to spend as much time dancing as they used to.

“When we’re out here dancing, we don’t think about the state of the country,” said Yeafersonth Manrique, a 24-year-old drenched in sweat after a long practice. “In this world there is no crisis.”

 

(Editing by Vivian Sequera, Pablo Garibian and Diane Craft)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

As tensions over aid rise, Venezuelan troops fire on villagers, kill two

People waiting to cross to Venezuela gesture at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Carlos Suniaga and Nelson Bocanegra

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, witnesses said, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block U.S.-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.

The United States, which is among dozens of Western nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.

With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Maduro, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, says opposition efforts to bring in aid are a U.S.-backed “cheap show” to undermine his government.

The socialist president has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed and threatened to do the same with the Colombian border ahead of a Saturday deadline by the opposition to bring in humanitarian assistance.

A fundraising concert for Venezuela, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson and featuring major Latin pop stars like Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, attracted nearly 200,000 in Cucuta on Friday, organizers said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty toward Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.

With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.

Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid from entering, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.

Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said.

“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”

Seven of the 15 injured earlier on Friday were rushed by ambulance across the border and were being treated at the Roraima General Hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro’s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.

Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.

The United States condemned “the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions”, a State Department official said on Friday.

Meanwhile China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned humanitarian aid should not be forced in because doing so could lead to violence.

BLOODSHED ‘NOT IN VAIN’

The bloodshed contrasted with the joyous ambiance at Branson’s “Venezuela Aid Live” in Cucuta, where Venezuelan and Colombian attendees, some crying, waved flags and chanted “freedom” under a baking sun.

“Is it too much to ask for freedom after 20 years of ignominy, of a populist Marxist dictatorship?” Venezuelan artist Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodreguez asked. “To the Venezuelans there, don’t give up, the blood that has been spilled was not in vain”.

Earlier in the day, Branson held a news conference near a never-used road border bridge that has become a symbol of Maduro’s refusal to let aid in after authorities blocked the bridge with shipping containers.

“What we’re hoping is that the authorities in Venezuela will see this wonderful, peaceful concert…and that the soldiers will do that right thing,” Branson said.

Guaido has vowed the opposition will on Saturday bring in foreign aid being stockpiled in Cucuta, the Brazilian town of Boa Vista and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, setting up more clashes with Maduro’s security forces.

He set off toward the Colombian border on Thursday in a convoy with opposition lawmakers to oversee the effort but did not disclose his location on Friday out of security concerns, according to his aides.

“You must decide which side you are on in this definitive hour,” Guaido wrote on Twitter. “To all the military: between today and tomorrow, you will define how you want to be remembered.”

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Guaido’s move to assume the interim presidency and international backing has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, which has vowed to keep protesting until Maduro steps down. It previously staged major protests in 2014 and 2017 that waned in the face of government crackdowns.

Yet some government critics are concerned it will take more than pressure to force Maduro to step down.

“The truth is that not even 10 concerts will make damned Maduro leave office,” said Darwin Rendon, one of the 3.4 million Venezuelans to have emigrated since 2015 to find work. He sends what little he can earn selling cigarettes back to his family in Caracas.

“This regime is difficult to remove,” he added.

(Reporting by Carlos Suniaga and William Urdaneta in Kumarakapay, Venezuela; Nelson Bocanegra and Steven Grattan in Cucuta, Colombia; Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Lesley Wroughton in Washington Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in BrasiliaWriting by Sarah MarshEditing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

Venezuela’s Guaido declares himself president, Maduro under pressure

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Corina Pons, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to demand an end to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a statement minutes later, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting “Get out, Maduro” and “Guaido, Presidente,” while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas. A rally the night before left four people reported dead, an echo of tumultuous riots two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido, in a speech before a cheering crowd, took an oath swearing himself in as interim president.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end of the usurpation,” he said.

He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections.

The Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens, according to sources.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a fraudulent. His government accuses Guaido of staging a coup and has threatened him with jail.

ARMED FORCES

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

“We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,” said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Venezuelan migrant exodus hits 3 million: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Colombian migration officers check the identity documents of people trying to enter Colombia from Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Three million Venezuelans have fled economic and political crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The exodus, driven by violence, hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines, amounts to around one in 12 of the population.

It has accelerated in the past six months, said William Spindler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which appealed for greater international efforts to ease the strain on the country’s neighbors.

U.N. data in September showed 2.6 million had fled.

“The main increases continue to be reported in Colombia and Peru,” Spindler said.

Colombia is sheltering 1 million Venezuelans. Some 3,000 more arrive each day, and the Bogota government says 4 million could be living there by 2021, costing it nearly $9 billion.

Oil-rich Venezuela has sunk into crisis under Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has damaged the economy through state interventions while clamping down on political opponents.

He has dismissed the migration figures as “fake news” meant to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela’s affairs.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR said the exodus was straining several neighboring countries, notably Colombia.

“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy,” said Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM Joint Special Representative for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

“…However, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community.”

Regional government officials are to meet in Quito, Ecuador from Nov 22-23 to coordinate humanitarian efforts.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

Brazil judge overturns Venezuela border closure, opening path for immigrants

FILE PHOTO: People stand at the border with Venezuela, seen from the Brazilian city of Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File photo

By Ricardo Brito and Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – A Brazilian federal appeals court judge on Tuesday overturned a ruling barring Venezuelan immigrants fleeing economic and political turmoil from entering the country, the Solicitor General’s office, which had made the appeal, said.

On Sunday, a federal judge in the northern state of Roraima ordered the border closed until the state could create “humanitarian” conditions to receive a massive influx of Venezuelans, who have overwhelmed state social services and caused a growing humanitarian crisis.

Appeals court judge Kassio Marques acknowledged “grave violations of the public and judicial order,” but overturned the lower court’s ruling. He said the closure would not help to improve humanitarian conditions for Venezuelans fleeing their country, as the federal prosecutors and public defenders offices who brought the case had argued.

The Brasilia-based judge’s decision was cited in a statement by the Solicitor General’s office.

The federal police said on Tuesday that it never actually closed the frontier but had begun preparations for shutting it on Monday.

“Those measures were promptly suspended this morning, in the wake of the new judicial decision … and the normal flow of Venezuelan immigrants was re-established,” the federal police said in a statement.

A state government official in Roraima said that although the federal police never closed the border, officers did momentarily stop Venezuelans entering.

“They only let pass those who had been granted asylum, residency or could prove they have passage out of the country,” the official told Reuters. “There was even a little protest.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) welcomed the Brazilian judiciary’s decision.

Nearly 33,000 Venezuelans had asked for asylum in Brazil as of April 30, while another 25,000 had entered the country by other means, including humanitarian visas, labor and migration visas, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told reporters in Geneva.

“In 2018, the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela is already larger than for the whole of 2017,” he said.

Venezuela is in the grip of a severe economic crisis, with people going short of food, medicines and other essentials, and periodic waves of protests against the country’s leftist president, Nicolas Maduro.

In appealing Sunday’s ruling, the Solicitor General’s office said closing the border in Roraima would likely do little to stem the flow of Venezuelans, as the border is so extensive.

The Brazilian Air Force began flying Venezuelan immigrants in Roraima to other cities of Brazil in May and has so far flown more than 800 Venezuelans out of Boa Vista, the state capital.

(Additional reporting by Staphanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frances Kerry)

After re-election, Venezuela’s Maduro faces overseas condemnation

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a vote foes denounced as a farce that cemented autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil-producing nation.

Maduro, 55, hailed his win in Sunday’s vote as a victory against “imperialism,” but his main rival alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition boycotted the election, given that two of its most popular leaders were barred from running, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties from using their names, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists. Turnout was under 50 percent.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced outside the Miraflores presidential palace, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

“The revolution is here to stay!” a jubilant Maduro told the crowd, promising to prioritize economic recovery after five years of recession in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

“Let’s go, Nico!” his supporters chanted until after midnight during party scenes in downtown Caracas.

“We mustn’t cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did. The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro’s socialist predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Senior U.S. State Department officials declared Sunday’s vote a “sham” and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain, which has led European Union criticism of Maduro, also weighed in. “Venezuela’s electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering,” tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation” behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations. China and Russia, which have both poured money into Venezuela in recent years, were also unlikely to join in the international condemnation.

‘TRAGIC CYCLE’ FOR VENEZUELA

The election board said Maduro won 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his chief challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with the opposition boycott to stand.

Turnout was 46 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 percent at the last presidential vote in 2013. Suggesting turnout was even lower, an electoral board source told Reuters 32.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) as most polls shut.

The government used ample state resources during the campaign and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government’s placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called “red spots” close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued “fatherland cards” at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a “prize” promised by Maduro.

The “fatherland cards” are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the ‘Chavismo’ movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

“I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We’re in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it,” tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

Maduro, who faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela’s moribund economy, has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies. The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela’s multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars’ funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed the Venezuelan government and people could handle their own affairs and that everyone should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would “handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention,” but did not elaborate.

 

 

(Reporting by Aexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Marco Aquino in Lima; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus Berwick and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Venezuela’s Maduro defies foreign censure, offers ‘prize’ to voters

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in La Guaira, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro scoffed at international criticism of Venezuela’s upcoming May 20 vote in which he is seeking re-election and offered a prize for those who vote with a state-issued card.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition is boycotting the election on the grounds it is rigged in favor of the 55-year-old socialist incumbent. The United States, European Union and various Latin American neighbors have also slammed it as unfair.

“So they’re not going to recognize Maduro around the world. What the hell do I care?” Maduro said at an election rally in La Guaira, on the coast outside Caracas, late on Wednesday. “What the hell do I care what Europe and Washington say?”

Maduro, who is casting his re-election campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth, has only one serious rival: Henri Falcon, 56, a former state governor. Falcon has broken with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, believing anger at a economic crisis will win him votes.

OPEC member Venezuela is in a fifth year of punishing recession, inflation is the highest in the world, oil production is at a three-decade low, shortages of food and medicines are widespread, and millions are skipping meals.

Some polls show Falcon more popular than Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.

But the opposition abstention campaign, presence of Maduro loyalists in key institutions including the election board, and vote-winning power of state welfare programs like housing and food giveaways makes a Falcon victory look a tall order.

In his speech, Maduro told supporters that all those who vote showing a government-issued “Fatherland Card,” which is needed to access certain welfare programs, probably would receive “a really good prize.”

He did not give details but critics say that, and other pre-election cash and other bonuses via the card, is akin to vote bribery. Voting in Venezuela is secret but state workers say they are constantly pressured to support the government.

FALCON SEEKS ALLIES

Falcon, a former soldier, has been largely shunned by Venezuela’s best-known opposition leaders but this week received the support of at least one high-profile leader, Enrique Marquez, who is vice president of A New Time party.

He also has been wooing twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to join his campaign but without success so far. Capriles, and another popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, are both barred from standing in the election.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is the cleanest in the world but even the official operator of the voting platform, UK-based Smartmatic, denounced fraud in an election last August. Little is known about the Argentine company that has replaced it for this month’s election.

If Maduro does win re-election, attention will turn immediately to whether he plans to use the political breathing space to deepen an internal purge of rivals, and if the United States will carry out a threat to impose oil sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s administration already has imposed some financial and individual sanctions on Maduro’s government, accusing senior officials of rights abuses and corruption.

Pro-boycott opposition activists have been stepping up their campaign in recent days with scattered protests around the country. Numbers, however, have been thin – a far cry from the mass anti-Maduro protests of 2017.

“Those who participate with Maduro in the May 20 farce, including Henri Falcon and (evangelical pastor) Javier Bertucci, have split with Venezuelan patriots and democrats,” an opposition grouping called the Wide Front said in a statement.

“By recognizing false results, they will become a collaborationist opposition recognized by the regime so it can outlaw and persecute democratic society.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott)

Venezuela annual inflation at more than 4,000 percent: National Assembly

A woman and a child look at prices in a grocery store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Inflation in January alone was 84.2 percent, opposition lawmakers said, amid an economic crisis in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering food and medicine shortages.

The monthly figure implies annualized inflation of more than 150,000 per cent and that prices will double at least every 35 days.

With cash in short supply and banking and communications infrastructures struggling, day-to-day transactions are becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuelans.

The government blames the problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with a helping hand from Washington.

Critics in turn blame strict currency controls, which were enacted by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago this week. The bolivar is down some 40 percent against the dollar in the last month alone.

A million dollars of Venezuelan bolivars bought when the currency controls were introduced would now be worth just $7 on the black market.

The government has not published inflation data for more than two years though has increased the minimum wage repeatedly in a nod to rising prices.

The government raised the minimum wage 40 percent on Jan. 1, making it roughly equivalent now to just over $1 per month.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Venezuela’s chronic shortages give rise to ‘medical flea markets’

Venezuela's chronic shortages give rise to 'medical flea markets'

By Anggy Polanco and Isaac Urrutia

SAN CRISTOBAL/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s critical medicine shortage has spurred “medical flea markets,” where peddlers offer everything from antibiotics to contraceptives laid out among the traditional fruits and vegetables.

The crisis-wrought Latin American nation is heaving under worsening scarcity of drugs, as well as basic foods, due to tanking national production and strict currency controls that crimp imports.

The local pharmaceutical association estimates at any given time, there is a shortage of around 85 percent of drugs.

Sick Venezuelans often scour pharmacies and send pleas on social media to find treatment. Increasingly, however, they are turning to a flourishing black market offering medicines surreptitiously bought from Venezuelan hospitals or smuggled in from neighboring Colombia.

“Here I can find the vitamins I need for my memory,” said 56-year-old Marisol Salas, who suffered a stroke, as she bought the pills at a small stand at the main bus terminal in the Andean city of San Cristobal.

Around her, Venezuelans asked sellers for medicine to control blood pressure as well as birth control pills.

“People are looking for anticonvulsants a lot recently,” said Antuam Lopez, 30, who sells medicine alongside vegetables, and said hospital employees usually provide him with the drugs.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro says resellers are in league with a U.S.-led conspiracy to sabotage socialism and are to blame for medicine shortages.

RISKS

In the middle of a market in the humid and sweltering city of Maracaibo, dozens of boxes full of medicines including antibiotics and pain killers are stacked on top of each other. The packaging is visibly deteriorated: The cases are discolored and some are even dirty.

Doctors warn these drugs — usually smuggled in from Colombia, a few hours’ drive from Maracaibo — pose risks.

“We’ve found that a lot of them have not been maintained at proper temperatures,” warned oncologist Jose Oberto, who leads the Zulia state’s doctors association.

Still, some Venezuelans feel they have no choice but to rely on contraband medicine.

“I had to buy medicine from Colombia, and it worried me because the label said ‘hospital use,'” said retiree Esledy Paez, 62.

But they are often prohibitively expensive for Venezuelans, many of whom earn just a handful of dollars a month at the black market rate due to soaring inflation.

Norkis Pabon struggled to find antibiotics for her hospitalized husband to prevent his foot injury from worsening due to diabetes.

“But the treatment costs 900,000 bolivars ($9.43; twice the minimum wage) and I do not know what to do,” said Pabon, who is unemployed.

(Writing by Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)